SPORTS >>Wildcats restless, anxious to get playoffs underway
When the Harding Academy Wildcats take the field against the Hector Wildcats this Friday night in the second round of the playoffs, they will be the favorites against the third-place team from the 3A-3 conference. That doesn’t mean that Hector will be a pushover for the 3A-2 undefeated conference champions. Hector will bring a 9-2 record into First Security Stadium in Searcy, but the visitors are just a couple of mistakes away from being undefeated.
Hector lost to conference champion Lavaca 20-14, and fell 8-6 to perennial powerhouse Charleston. Both losses came on the road, which is a concern for Hector coach Bryan Rust. “We had to go on the road to those places, and those were some tough teams,” Rust said. “We made a couple of mistakes that really cost us. We’ve played really well at home, and played pretty well on the road for the most part, we just didn’t get it done those two times. We had a few opportunities.”
Those two losses haven’t hurt the visting Wildcats’ confidence. They are aware they are on equal footing with the league champs, and believe they can play with the best of them. What concerns Rust is Harding Academy’s offense. It’s one his team hasn’t see all season. “I think the last time we played a true spread team was about four years ago when Little Rock Christian first got started,” Rust said. “We’ve seen some teams try to run it that weren’t very good. We haven’t seen anybody that does like Harding. They’re efficient to say the least. It’s going to be a challenge, that’s for sure.”
Hector has only 24 players on the roster, so simulating the Wildcat offense with the backups is a problem. He thinks his team’s football smarts will help when they get on the field. “I think we’ve got some pretty good kids, and I think we’ve got smart kids,” Rust said. “They’ll know where they’re supposed to be and what their assignments are just by us coaching them this week. The mental preparation isn’t a concern. The physical preparation is a concern because they won’t know what it’s going to be like until they get out there. All our good ones (in practice) will be on defense watching while the young ones try to simulate what Harding’s going to do. Really we’ve got no way to simulate their offense. We’re just going to have to do our best and adjust on the fly.”
Rust runs a straight up Dead T offense, which has become a rarity in its own right. That may not be much of an advantage this week, given that Harding Academy got to take a week off and scout the Hector-Corning game last week. Both of those teams run similar offenses, so Rust feels Harding has been preparing the same way for two weeks, regardless of who won their first-round game.
“A lot of people think (HA’s bye-week) is an advantage, a lot of people think it’s disadvantage,” Rust said. “I think given the circumstances, it’s an advantage for them because they basically got two weeks to prepare for one game. Corning runs about the same thing we do, so they’ve just been gearing up for two weeks.”
Hector’s go-to players, as is usually the case in the dead T, are the quarterback and fullback. Senior Ryan White has rushed for over 950 yards, and hopes to become the second player on the team to top 1000 yards this season. Fullback Lucas Watson, also a senior, has already surpassed the 1000-yard mark, and Rust estimates he’s around 1150 yards right now.
The defense is led by senior linebacker Brandon Dalton, who leads the team in tackles. Senior defensive back Cody Storm is also a major factor, and will be a key to stopping, or at least slowing down, the Harding Academy passing attack. Those four guys have been tremendous for us all year,” Rust said. We’re really heavy on seniors this year, and the leadership has been great. I’m looking for those guys to step up for us.”
Practically no one is picking Hector to win, and Rust relishes the role of underdog. “Everybody tells us we’re the underdog,” Rust said. “We kind of like that role. It takes some of the pressure off of us and that’s not that bad of a situation to be in. Harding’s undefeated and beat some pretty good teams. They’re the conference champions and we’re playing at their place. So I’d say they’re the favorites.”